Mental Health at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

by Matthew Shelley

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has a proud tradition as a showcase for productions that break the padlocks of convention, allowing fresh thought and discussion.

The arts are one of the great agenda setting forces of society, often leading and shaping public opinion.

What starts in Edinburgh ripples out across the planet thanks to the fact that it’s the world’s largest arts festival with around 4,000 shows and 300 venues, selling 2.7 million tickets.

So an upsurge in productions addressing mental health and wellbeing is good news for everyone. This is an area where we urgently need more awareness, discussion, understanding and action.

As someone who has been promoting, and writing about, Fringe shows for a fair few years, and coming from a family which has experienced its own share of mental health issues, I have been very much aware of the change.

Such is the momentum that the festival organisers are staging a workshop, run by the Mental Health Foundation, entitled Mental Health is a Fringe Issue. Even more impressively the foundation last year launched the Mental Health Fringe Award.

The range of shows, and approaches, is remarkable.

The irrepressible Ruby Wax (describing herself as “once crazy, now less so”) will be appearing at The Pleasance with Frazzled – which Radio Times placed at number two in a top 10 of Fringe shows.

Summerhall has two productions with an emphasis on music – the blues driven Valerie from New Zealand and How to Keep Time: A Drum Solo for Dementia.

Army@TheFringe, the Army’s own venue, has productions such as Wired and Shell Shock . One about a young female soldier confronting PTSD and the other about an older male veteran refusing to recognise he has the condition.

In addition to comedy, drama and music there are also talks.

One comes courtesy of University of Edinburgh psychiatrist Stephen Lawrie and is titled Why is Mental Illness So Goddamn Controversial?

If he can sort that one out we really will be making progress.

Robin Kelly is a musician, playwright and scientist from a New Zealand family deeply affected by mental illness. He is bringing his show Valerie to the Edinburgh Fringe. This compelling piece of cabaret theatre explores issues around mental health and celebrates his grandmother (and all those like her) who give vital support to those they love.

A man speaking at a microphone

Robin Kelly at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I’m close to my grandmother, Valerie Bethell. She lived with us through my teens and gave the blessing at my civil union. The ceremony brought memories of her wedding vows and her sadness about leaving my grandfather when his illness proved insurmountable.

The stories of him and Valerie in their early days seemed glamorous. They had a restaurant and hung out with Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra.

However, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia resulted in him being in a home for most of my life.

Valerie gave me a 12 page letter she’d written to her lawyer to show that divorce was warranted. I learnt a lot from that letter. It wasn’t just looking at it because it was interesting. I wanted to figure out what I’d inherited.

A vintage picture of a woman putting on her make up.

The Real Valerie

There’s a strong current of depression (and more) in our family. It’s particularly uncomfortable since my own depression and anxiety are worsening.

As we’ve developed the show it’s become about that too. We bring Valerie’s story to life and also explore genetics and biology and mental health. We put Valerie at the centre of it all because she is resilient as hell. She survived and somehow protected my mother.  And in fact my mother turned into a pretty awesome person.

The show goes to some dark places. There are songs that explore connections across generations. There are brutal truths. But ultimately it is about love. It’s a way of saying thank you to Valerie. She held on for so long,  to keep others safe underneath her. There are many women like her – they should be celebrated. That’s what we’ll be doing at The Fringe.

By Michelle McKay, part of the team presenting Wired at Army@TheFringe.

For the Army to be hosting plays about PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) at its own Edinburgh Fringe venue looks like real progress. It’s a condition that can affect anyone, but people in professions like the Army personnel are at especially high risk.

Wired tells the story of a young recruit, Joanna, who is involved in an incident which triggers PTSD. When she returns home on leave, she starts to understand that challenges in her past have also contributed to her current mental state.

A woman with army uniform on.

An Image from Wired at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The play deals with the issues that can arise from covering up past trauma and then layering more stress on top, which eventually causes our character to breakdown. We feel these issues are important for us to address and for audiences to see.

One of the wonderful things about theatre is that it allows us to watch others deal with the same issues we may have in real life. We see their actions, positive and negative and it allows us to reflect back in a safe environment. Wired shows the hazards of not addressing issues. In the end, we see the freedom that is gained from confronting difficulties, having open conversations and (where appropriate) seeking treatment.

In our play we are able to end on feelings of hope and characters that are able to move forward. They realise they aren’t alone and that there is help available. That feeling of relief is wonderful and we hope that our audiences will also see the resources that are available to them. So while the setting and the characters are all military, Wired will resonate with people from every walk of life.

If this story can support one audience member through difficult times, we have done our job.

Tim Marriott made his name in sitcoms like Brittas Empire and Allo, Allo before leaving the stage to become a teacher. Now, aged 60, he is diving back into grassroots theatre with his own company, Smokescreen Productions, which is dedicated to theatre about issues that matter.

We commit to produce work that starts conversations. We are bringing three plays to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, all of which centre on themes of mental health.

Mental health is an issue that people find hard to talk about. We are willing to accept blips in our physical health, but not in our mental health. Shell Shock was commissioned as a stigma reduction project, an adaptation of an ex-squaddie’s diary charting his descent into and through PTSD. It is like the group therapy session where no one wants to talk first… well, Tommy is about to kick off and get that session going.

All Change at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

All Change addresses the fragility that age can bring, focussing on the relationship between father and daughter as he retreats into dementia and slips away from her. The difficulties of managing such a condition are highlighted through playful conversational exchanges between the two. As crossed wires and changing tracks increase the confusion and past and present collide.

Both plays use humour to engage an audience in the subject matter. These are followed by talk-backs, where others may share their own stories. The conversation continues, talking about the things that we sometimes find hard to articulate. 

The third play is darker in theme and content. Mengele places the notorious doctor of Auschwitz on the beach where he drowned in 1979. We imagine him questioned, cajoled and flattered by the woman he believes has saved him. Therefore we offer a ‘powerful expose a sociopathic narcissist’. (Broadway World). We ask the audience to wake up and see through the political rhetoric we hear repeated today. And to see these unrepentant manipulators for what they really are.

Three different takes on three different aspects. All seeking to enlighten, provoke and challenge.

Mental health. Time to talk about it.

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